While it’s easy to blame the community around us for misunderstanding and “casting the first stone,” as they observe and judge our process against their own reality, at the core of this sensation of suffocation and grasping as we grieve is the judgment of self. We harshly and aggressively judge our personal grief on a micro-level against the social norms uploaded to us by our unique lifetime of cultural experiences, mostly as a mechanism of self-preservation. We assign meaning that makes us “wrong, ” “unworthy,” “undesirable,” or “unhealthy, but our authentic experience goes unchanged. As a result, we suffer more deeply for it because our judgment makes our personal reality unsafe and we’re all in the business of surviving at the end of the day. We’re literally wired on a mental and physiological level for surviving. However, that survival mechanism was originally intended to keep us alive when a saber toothed tiger attacked, so it’s often a bit over-aggressive in its perception of danger when it comes to our emotions and not our actual life. Judgment can come across our survival center as a matter of life and death, it’s the modern-day saber toothed tiger. With our evolved capacity for reasoning, we’ve taken survival to a whole new level, perceiving threats to our existence in the disapproving glance from our co-worker or the unusual silence from a friend. We do seem to have a harder time detecting self-judgment as a threat, we simply accept that voice within as true. The fascinating thing is, so many of us grappling with judgment in grief are rational, capable, deeply-insightful, socially functional humans whose attempts at healing continue to be immobilized because of our inability to identify the block. It shows up as unnamable pain, which we misinterpret as sadness because… someone died; of course that’s the source of our suffering.
It has been fascinating to watch my culturally informed expectations of my own grief be measured against the truth of my journey.
We writhe around inside our own grief so heavily intoxicated by the belief that we are doing it wrong that we can’t move through the experience we’re actually having. We’re so preoccupied with orchestrating strength and grace in our grief that we defer, sometimes indefinitely, the true work of experiencing our pain that’s necessary for healing. Our process gets interrupted over and over because we’re continually disconnecting from what we’re actually feeling in the name of self-preservation. Grief is misunderstood as being a cruel and heartless human experience we’re forced to endure and equates to a lifetime of suffering for everyone it touches; suffering because of sadness. We see those in mourning as victims of tragedy instead of humans living out reality, however intense and painful their present experience may be. What’s actually happening in the meticulously designed process of grief is a systematic rewiring of our personal reality, triggered by the deeply felt loss of someone or something that was intrinsic to our sense of Self. In our western culture, grief is seen as an ongoing expression of sadness about who or what is now absent from our lives. I see grief as a hard-wired, systematic function of healing, engineered uniquely for each and every trauma or loss we experience as a way to process the information on a mental, emotional, physical and spiritual level so we may evolve. Grief is a rite of passage that, when fully integrated, affords us a deeper sense of Self, gratitude, and the magnificence of human life. This doesn’t mean we get to spiritually bypass the pain on the way to our resulting personal evolution.
During my yoga teacher training in 2014-15, I learned the concept of swadyaya or "self observation without judgment." Two and a half years into this grief journey, I can say with certainty, it has afforded me a perfect (and intense, and terrifying, and delightful, and back again) terrain for practicing the study of Self. Yoga teaches us to sit with what's truly there, acknowledging, naming and feeling the full scope of our experience. We lean in rather than numb out, or compartmentalize. This self-observation, or “witnessing mind,” as my teacher Yoganand Michael Carroll calls it, teaches us to see the uncomfortable experiences in life with new eyes. Whether spotlighting something that needs more attention, love, integration, release, or perhaps revealing a truth of our essential Self we've never before recognized, this work changes the landscape of our personal truth. Instead of being lost inside the stories of suffering that feel so true they overpower our emotions, responses, and oftentimes our physiology, we come to see they actually mean nothing about ourselves, or the ability to choose differently. They are simply things we must identify, hold in compassion as we heal the wound generating the story, and move through our emotional landscape as we evolve. I want to recognize that within the traumatic fog of grief, it is almost impossible to see we have any choice at all until some baseline healing occurs. This takes time and often professional support, so please be tender with yourself if you’re not there yet. The hero’s journey through healing a broken heart requires patience and stamina, there’s simply no quick fix.
Before you conjure up some idea of how perfect I must believe myself to be to have transcended the enormity of my own humanness, please let me be the first to say that this is a daily practice and I bring myself back to it over, and over, and OVER again. As my awareness grows, the practice of self-observation becomes more natural, but within the vast experience of life, it is a constant practice. Self-study is a fascinating thing to explore, particularly when you're a recovering perfectionist or people-pleaser who knows what it feels like to so heavily self-filter your own needs, desires, thoughts, and emotions that you're not always sure if they're actually yours or a version of what you think you're “supposed to be” feeling and choosing to secure your worth in the world. Embracing vulnerability while acknowledging and honoring our personal truths is a daily practice.
The second anniversary of my late husband's military crash afforded me an excellent, and painful opportunity to lean into this judgment of self and witness personal evolution. The dates that mark the anniversary of a loved one's death do culturally elicit a resurgence of grief from the spread-far-and-wide social network who, too, were so touched by the death we’re grieving. As the notes of condolence and in memoriam posts came in, I felt equal parts gratitude and disconnect. I was touched by those who remembered my late husband, our story, and reflected on who he was in their lives in the days leading up to his rainbow day*; yet, there my grief was showing up differently this year in a way that landed far outside the cultural expectations as I perceived it. To be sure, it's a date that demands acknowledgement because of the way the world shifted for so many of us that day, but to me it's a marker of time passage that is about me and not him. Cue self-judgment around all the reasons that makes me feel like a really "bad" widow:
How dare I make this day about me? There is no honor or grace in making his death about me, this is his day to be honored. I am supposed to be mourning my beloved husband, extra hard, on the day of his death, and I'm making it about me while everyone else is missing him!”
See? It's a practice. It’s so easy to regress to see it all in black and white, making meaning where there is simply human experience and judging ourselves against a standard of right and wrong that exists only in the recesses of our most primitive brain space.
With the help of so many incredible healers, way-showers, and sisters, I have done tremendous soul-work around healing the wound of my husband’s death. That work has been all about mourning who he was in my life, and the Self I lost when he died. It has been processing his absence from my life, and the experience of losing what then felt like absolutely everything. The fact is, my experience has shifted from mourning his death to feeling gratitude that he was a profound and beautiful part of my story. My grief is no longer about suffering, longing and despair, it’s about navigating what his death means about my identity and life in the aftermath. This shift in my experience has turned his rainbow day into a day that isn't about missing him…let me explain.
That day before the two-year anniversary of his death, something shifted in me. I never saw it coming, and had no awareness around it the year prior. There it was: that sinking-into-the-depth-of-black-waters feeling. It was as though I stepped out of my body, and literally spent the day hovering around myself as I went through the motions of my life, watching from the outside as I made breakfast, wrote love notes on the napkins in my kids' lunch boxes, chaperoned a field trip, and stopped by my favorite bike shop. I was fully “functional” to the casual observer, and completely numb and disconnected within; a feeling so familiar. This was my normal state of being for much of that first year doing life without him. It happened as soon as I saw them standing in full dress uniforms on the threshold of my home to notify me of the accident. And here I was, two years later, everything in a fog all over again, totally numb and disconnected.
Except, that day, it didn't feel like grief and, it felt like anxiety and bracing for something I couldn’t name at first. It felt like tenderness and exhaustion. Over the course of the day, I came to realize what I was being hyper-triggered by was an all-too-familiar sense of being watched by everyone, and seen by no one. What was being rustled up was a struggle between my social self (the “me” interacting with the outside world) and my essential Self (the hard-wired “me” that lives in my soul and psyche). Self-preservation and despair were rising up in response to the belief that my true experience on the anniversary of the crash was not in alignment with what I believed was expected of me that day. I was assigning meaning to that violation of “proper grief protocol,” as I saw it. The self-judgment that I was wrong and the fear that I would be abandoned by my social tribe for that wrongness left me attempting to replace my genuine emotional experience with one that matched more closely to the “right way” of grieving.
What I was feeling in anticipation of that date wasn’t intensified grief over his death, although I fully acknowledge that many experience exactly that. The tone of the messages I received were overflowing with loving-intentions, offering comfort for my deep sadness. They were messages honoring him and offering words of solace and strength to me. That was their experience with the date, an absolutely culturally appropriate understanding of what I would be feeling. No one knew that I was suffering in a completely different way, reliving the trauma of receiving the news of his death. I remember the details so vividly, I can close my eyes and put myself right back there in the hours preceding and following the knock on my door that changed everything. For me, the calendar marker of his death doesn't show up as being about him. For me, that date is about the trauma I experienced when they came to my door. It’s the day my old way of living and seeing the world ended. It’s the day my heart cracked wide open and the hopes and dreams we had made together were enveloped in darkness. It’s the day the life we were envisioning, sacrificing for, and working toward ended. It’s the day they came to my house and told me our “someday” simply would not be.
In a fabulous podcast episode, Elizabeth DiAlto riffs about the purpose of triggers, and it deeply resonates with me. As Elizabeth puts it, one of the roles of a trigger is to, "reflect back the disowned pieces of yourself that want to be loved, healed and integrated." She later expanded the idea further, saying that ultimately, triggers create an environment "for growth and expansion" and teach us to practice discernment in our lives.
The anxiety I felt so viscerally as a mechanism of my grief was there to help me see what needed healing, pain I hadn't yet consciously known I was carrying: I was bracing against the trauma of finding out that he was dead again. My hard-wiring was literally waiting for them to come to my door all over. When I finally named the source of my suffering, I could see the healing that was waiting to be embraced. I spent the rest of the day making space for what I was truly feeling, and finding my way back into my body so I could connect more fully with the experience. I called my two best friends to talk it out, a ritual that has helped me find my way so many times in this wild ride of grief. I messaged my life coach to hash it out further. I went for a run, made space for stillness in meditation, and of course, journaled my heart out. I called in every form of support and self-care I had at my disposal, because my work that day was twofold: to soften and hold with compassion the true nature of what I was feeling, and to use my tools and support people to identify and unravel the beliefs that were being triggered. In doing so, thanks to neuroplasticity, I was rewiring my brain to know there was no threat awaiting me in that calendar day, no stress response was required, no fight or flight would be necessary.
The hours ticked closer to his rainbow day, but because I leaned in to the discomfort of my triggers, the suffering diminished. I was safe. There was peace where there had been anxiety and bracing. He was still gone, but it wasn’t happening all over again. I had released the fear of being judged or misunderstood by my community, trusting those who loved me would support my authentic experience and those who couldn’t understand weren’t truly the tribe I wanted to draw most close to me. The next day, his angel-versary as some call it, was simply a day of gratitude as I received love and memories of him from hundreds of people who loved us both. I was able to stand outside the suffering I had experienced the day before to simply receive what everyone else felt inspired to give that day. It was safe and beautiful that the date marking his death was one that they connected with to remember him and reach out to me. The story of suffering I felt so deeply in my body the day before was simply gone because I had named it and leaned in to understand what it was showing me.
I chose the words on his headstone with great intention: “We dance your legacy.” Every one of us who was touched by his life has an opportunity every day to honor who he was in the way we choose to live. This perspective makes honoring the date of his death a non-event for me. I honor and celebrate the way he lived. I choose to honor his life on the days that made him most happy, not the day his life ended. I choose to celebrate all the ways he lived instead of reflecting on the fact he died. To me, that feels like a more true way to honor all he was. While those dates of celebrating him are beautiful and full of new memories made with my loved ones, they’re also incredibly painful because in the joy of remembering comes the depth of what’s forever missing. In terms of the calendar, July 4 (his favorite holiday, packed with years of memories) is significantly painful for me while March 1 (the date of his death) is essentially a benign experience. He is a part of our every day, so a single day marking his death feels, to me, insignificant. Every day I remember. He remains a part of our story, even as that story expands and shifts and fills with new hopes and visions of what will be.
Danielle LaPorte writes, “These days, I’m more attracted to people who are attracted to the light. And it turns out that those people who are most committed to the Light have already battled a lot of darkness – initiated. Some people can be swimming in emotional shit and say, I’m getting back to the Joy, whatever it takes, however long it takes. And with those Friends, I will get in and shovel, weep, climb, incant, and row as long as it takes.”
I truly believe this is the journey we are all embarked upon as we walk each other home: “to shovel, weep, climb, incant and row as long as it takes.” Getting back to the joy has nothing to do with disconnect, numbing, or compartmentalizing. It’s all about leaning in and finding your way through. We must create space for our individualized, authentic grief experience to be fully felt and integrated. In doing so, the suffering and sadness shifts toward gratitude and an eagerness to embrace the gift of life we have before us. Thank you to every single one of the Light-filled humans in my tribe that has kept me on the path of getting back to the joy in a raw, authentic, help-me-see-my-blind-spots kind of way. Forever gratitude to every single one of you who has shown up with me, authentically open, walking alongside as I figure out what my uniquely engineered-for-me process of grief is becoming.
*I’m often asked why I use the term “rainbow day” to describe the date my late husband died. Some call it the anniversary of his death or transition, others call it an “angel-versary.” When I talked to my then very young children about his death (which was an incredibly hard concept to explain in its own rite), I used the idea found in Native American mythology of a spirit “crossing the rainbow bridge” as they transition from the earth to what lies beyond when they die and leave the physical plane. This imagery was something my children could connect with while working to grasp the concept of death.
I want to acknowledge that my experience with the anniversary marking the day my late husband crossed over is not going to match everyone's. What I know is we're all at different places on our specific, non-linear grief path and we will weave in and out of universal experiences and those that are unique only to our own journey. Please comment and share if this resonates with you. Please comment and let me know how it is that you honor the life of the one(s) you're grieving. xo